Archives: 06/2009

Institutional Crisis Unfolds in Honduras

A serious institutional crisis is taking place in Honduras as a result of President Manuel Zelaya’s call for a new constitution that would allow for his reelection. Zelaya, a close ally of Hugo Chávez, is barred from pursuing a second term in the general elections in November.

Unfortunately for Zelaya, he doesn’t have the backing of his own party, much less any other major political group. So he has moved unilaterally to call for a referendum on the need for a new constitution. The vote, which is scheduled for this Sunday, has been declared illegal by the Supreme Court and the Electoral Tribunal, and condemned by the Honduran Congress and attorney general (whose office is not part of the cabinet in Honduras).

Despite the widespread institutional opposition to his plans, Zelaya is pushing for the vote. On Wednesday he ordered the Honduran armed forces to start distributing the ballots and other electoral materials throughout the country. The army chief, complying with the Supreme Court ruling, refused to obey the order. Zelaya sacked him, which prompted the resignation of all other leading army officers and the defense minister.

The attorney general is asking Congress to impeach Zelaya for violating the institutional order and abusing his powers. Last night, the Congress discussed removing Zelaya from his office. The president is defiant and has accused the Congress of attempting a coup.

In the meantime, thousands of Zelaya’s supporters are taking to the streets. Yesterday, a mob personally led by Zelaya stormed a Honduran air force base in order to retrieve the electoral materials that the generals refused to distribute. The army is reportedly deploying troops in the capital Tegucigalpa to prevent possible riots.

Zelaya’s mentor, Hugo Chávez, is not staying out of the row. Last night he warned that Venezuela and its allies won’t sit idle while the Honduran “elites” launch a coup d’etat against Zeleya. He threatened to do “whatever it takes” to defend him. It might be more hot air coming from Venezuela’s strongman, but it certainly raises the spectrum of foreign involvement in what constitutes a domestic Honduran crisis.

In an interesting twist, Zelaya has asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to intervene and defend Honduras’ democratic institutions. Most countries in the OAS are client-states of Chávez’s oil largesse. This is why the organization has repeatedly failed to condemn the abuses that Chávez and his Bolivarian friends in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have committed against democratic institutions, independent media, the opposition, and so on. More recently, the general assembly of the OAS has lifted the membership suspension imposed on Cuba, despite the country’s blatant violation of the democratic charter of the organization.

So it wouldn’t be surprising for the OAS to come to Zelaya’s rescue with a statement in his favor, despite his efforts to subvert Honduras’ democratic institutions. Mimicking Chávez’s words, the OAS envoy to Honduras has already said that the organization won’t recognize any government that comes out of “a coup.” José Miguel Insulza, the OAS secretary general, gave a confusing and ambiguous statement regarding the sacking of the army chief, saying that “the Armed Forces should obey the constitutional mandate and the constituted authority.” It sounds more like an endorsement of Zelaya’s position. The OAS general assembly is meeting today to discuss the crisis.

It’s clear that Zelaya is deliberately generating an institutional crisis. He can rely on the support of Chávez and his regional allies in the OAS. And he knows that if the armed forces try to remove him, it would look like a “coup d’etat” that would probably be widely condemned all throughout Latin America.

This is a real test for the OAS and its supposed (and tarnished) commitment to democratic republican principles.

Ultimate Dodge: America Plans to Reduce Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan… And???

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded special operations forces in Iraq and this month became the commander of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, said he wants to avoid more civilian deaths.

Concern over civilian casualties makes sense in counterinsurgency, since the local population is the strategic center of gravity. I’ll concede that the infusion of 21,000 more troops — which Obama approved within his first 100 days in office — may lead to a reduction in violence in the medium-term. But the elephant in the Pentagon is that the intractable cross-border insurgency will likely outlive the presence of international troops. Honestly, Afghanistan is not a winnable war by any stretch of the imagination.

Certainly in Logar province, where the Taliban have set up a parallel judiciary, I can understand why McChrystal wants to step into voids not filled by the central government. But time and again, Afghans across the political spectrum — including President Hamid Karzai, Finance Minister Anwarulhaq Ahadisaid, Afghan security personnel, and even Afghanistan’s ambassador to Washington — blame the United States for allowing corruption in the Afghan government and repeatedly deny responsibility for their government’s own incompetence. Preventing militants from collecting taxes, enforcing order, and providing basic services means more than simply building up “indigenous capacity” — rather, we, the United States of America, according to those who advocate an indefinite military presence, must spend money we don’t have to be Afghanistan’s perpetual crutch.

McChrystal says he hopes to see an improvement on the ground in another 18 to 24 months. I hope Congress and the president hold him to his word, because if it were up to the military, we would remain in Central Asia for another 12 to 15 years. To win Afghan hearts and minds, America not only has to compete with the Taliban’s shadow government, but also with an amalgamation of mullahs and warlords who have usurped the power of indigenous tribal chiefs in the country’s restive southern and eastern provinces, particularly in Kandahar, the heart of “Taliban country.” Such a strategy is the epitome of social engineering.

Afghanistan’s 33 million people hail from more than 20 diverse cultures, including Uzbek, Tajik, Baloch, Turkman, Pashai, Nuristani, and others. Many of these ethnic groups have different tribal policies. Most Afghans are Sunni, but some, like the Hazara, are Shia. But the Taliban insurgency that we — not the Afghans — are combating, is dominated by the “rulers of the country,” its largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. In actuality,  ”Pashtun” refers to the more than 50 tribes within the Pashtun people, (including Ghilzai, Durrani, Wazirs, Afridis, and dozens more) concentrated in southern and eastern Afghanistan and along the border in northwest Pakistan. Each Pashtun tribe is divided into various sub-tribes or clans (there are estimated to be 30 clans in the Mehsud tribe alone). Each clan is then divided into sections that split into extended families.

The United States has begun devoting more resources to learning the nuance of various tribes to better understand what groups can be “peeled off” from militants. But better understanding would not necessarily yield the outcomes we want. Afghanistan’s cultural make-up is incredibly complex. And it appears the United States and NATO are backing one side of a civil war.

Durrani Pashtuns [Popalzai, Barakzai (Mohammadzai), Sadozai, Alikazai, and other clans] have been Afghanistan’s traditional political elite. Many Ghilzai Pashtuns in the country’s east (Hotak, Tokhi, Nasr, and Taraki), unlike their Durrani counterparts, tend to be rural, less educated, and were the main foot soldiers of the Taliban. The Afghan government (which we back) alienates some historically marginalized Durrani clans, such as those in the Panjpai Valley and some in Kandahar province (Alizai, Ahmadzai, Noorzai, and Ishaqzai), just as much as some Ghilzai clans in the east, which today only have token representation in the Afghan government.

This war is an unfathomable mess. Afghanistan could fall apart once we withdraw, whether we do so tomorrow or 20 years afterward. We should cut our losses now.

Mourning the Loss of a Great American Capitalist

mjWhile the big news of the day wouldn’t seem to have a public policy angle, Michael Jackson’s death allows us to remember that such phenomenal career achievements can only be possible in an economic system that rewards and harnesses talent.

The King of Pop’s creativity allowed him and his family to make hundreds of millions of dollars, yes, but it also created thousands of jobs in the music and marketing industries and brought joy to fans around the world. Whatever his personal eccentricities — perhaps, in part, as a result of them — Jackson represents a capitalist success story.

No central planner could have invented him, and no government bureaucracy could have transformed pop music in the way he did.

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I Have to Admit, I Was Wrong

I’ve just discovered that my calculation of DC education spending per pupil was wrong, and I have to publish a correction.

I wrote back in March that total DC k-12 spending, excluding charter schools, was $1,291,815,886 during the 2008-09 school year. That still appears to be correct. But to get the per-pupil number I divided total spending by the then-official enrollment count: 48,646. It now turns out that that number was rubbish. PRI’s Vicki Murray just pointed me to this recent DCPS press release that identifies a new audited enrollment number for the same school year:  44,681 students.

If that number excludes the 2,400 special education students that the District has placed in private schools, then DC’s correct total per pupil spending is $27,400.

If the new audited enrollment number does include the students placed in private schools, then DC’s correct total per pupil spending is $28,900.

Hmm. Let me think. What was that average tuition figure at the private schools serving DC voucher students….? Oh yes:  $6,600, according to the federal Department of Education.

In case you don’t know, that’s the program in which, after three years, voucher-receiving kids are reading two grade levels ahead of their public school peers — also according to the Dep’t. of Education (see the linked study, above).

It is also the program that President Obama has doomed to die, because of the, uh…, because, um…, why did he do that again?!?!

Tax Oppression Index Ranks America in Bottom Half of Industrialized Nations

A thorough new study of 30 nations from the Institut Constant de Rebecque in Switzerland reveals serious shortcomings in America’s tax system.

The report, entitled “Tax burden and individual rights in the OECD: An International Comparison,” creates a Tax Oppression Index based on three key variables: the overall tax burden, public governance, and taxpayer rights. The good news is that the United States has a comparatively low aggregate tax burden, though America’s score on this measure would be much better in the absence of a punitively high corporate tax rate. The bad news is that corruption and inefficiency in Washington drag down America’s score for public governance. The ugly news is that America has a very low rating for protecting taxpayer rights — largely because politicians have tilted the playing field to favor the IRS, including the fact that taxpayers lose the presumption of innocence provided in the Constitution.

Here is a brief description of the study:

The OECD’s campaign against “harmful tax competition” and “tax havens” has overshadowed the essential issue, namely the important roles that both tax competition and “tax havens” play for capital preservation and formation, leading to higher prosperity and better protection of individual rights throughout the OECD.

The tax oppression index is based on 18 representative criteria measuring fiscal attractiveness, public governance and financial privacy in the 30 member states of the OECD. Switzerland appears as the country with the lowest tax oppression — due to a relatively low tax burden and a more [classical] liberal institutional order, including its citizens’ right to veto legislation, political decentralization, and protection of financial privacy. Germany and France, on the other hand, whose governments have supported the OECD’s efforts, are among the most questionable states in terms of safeguarding their residents’ individual rights.

…The tax oppression index evaluates the 30 OECD member states on three complementary dimensions quantified by 18 representative criteria, on the basis of OECD and World Bank data. The index enables relevant conclusions about the tax burden and individual rights among those countries.

Switzerland earns the top ranking in the report, followed by Luxembourg, Austria, Canada, and Slovakia. Italy and Turkey have the worst systems, followed by Poland, Mexico, and Germany. The United States is tied for 19th, behind the welfare states of Scandinavia. With Obama promising to raise tax rates and increase the power of the IRS, it may just be a matter of time before the United States is competing for the world’s most oppressive tax regime.

“Sweet” Victory in Oregon

As a follow-up to Jason Kuznicki’s post from January, I am pleased to report that yesterday Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski signed HB 2817—a bill that eliminates the cartelization of the moving business in the Beaver state.

The old law required the Oregon Department of Transportation to notify existing moving companies of businesses that wanted to enter into their market. What’s more, those companies were given a veto over the would-be market entrants thereby locking out all competition to maintain artificially high prices—all with the government’s help.

The owner of a new moving company, Adam Sweet, enlisted the help of Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer and Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur to litigate against the old law. That lawsuit, once it cleared challenges for dismissal, prompted several pieces of legislation that culminated into the bill that the governor signed yesterday.

Congratulations to Mr. Sweet, Tim, and PLF for their well-fought victory for economic liberty for the entrepreneurs and consumers of Oregon!

More details from PLF here.